Dictator at the Podium: The First 100 Days Takes Me Back 25 Years
Danuta Hinc on Leaving a Regime She Tried to Forget
That we could, as we do, live in the realm of eternal mirrors,
working our way at the same time through unmowed grasses.
When on December 13th, 1991—the tenth anniversary of martial law being declared in communist Poland to crush the political opposition—I stepped on the tarmac of John F. Kennedy’s International Airport in New York, leaving Poland forever, I promised myself to forget who I was for the first 25 years of my life. I didn’t want to be political anymore. There was too much pain in it, and too much pain in remembering the extent to which it affected the lives of everyone I knew.
Growing up in communist Poland, in a family opposed to the regime, was like watching and discussing open wounds with the understanding that nothing could be changed, but that opposition was necessary. In fact, my family subscribed to the belief that opposition was the only honorable way of life. No one believed that communism would fall, nevertheless, everyone persisted. It felt like a Kafkaesque asylum.
It took me many years, close to ten, before I could say, I don’t remember how life felt before I came to America in 1991. And it was a blissful feeling. It’s hard to describe, but my physical body felt lighter without all the remembering; my mind became airier, I felt more space, a certain lightness that translated into peaceful happiness (or, more simply, I could sleep for eight hours, uninterrupted by nightmares).
The day Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States, I felt a familiar pull to the ground, and I knew, I remembered again. It was a heaviness I couldn’t exactly locate, but I knew that my stride changed, became slower, less fluid. My mind started running in the same habitual circles I thought I’d long forgotten.
I remembered the story, told to me when I was a teenager, of my grandfather, imprisoned shortly after World War II for saying, Even Hitler wouldn’t do it!, a criticism of the new communist government of Poland for turning the power off for days on end. My grandfather didn’t proclaim it publicly. He said it in a private conversation with a neighbor, because he didn’t know that everything had changed. He didn’t know that Poland wasn’t the Poland he remembered from before the war. He didn’t know that his neighbor wasn’t his neighbor anymore, but a paid spy. My grandfather wasn’t careful, and he paid a high price for his mistake. He was imprisoned for over a month in a cell without a sleeping cot. He slept on a concrete floor that drained the heat from his body, and only by being able to change position (not being chained to the floor, like the unlucky ones), did he avoid death by hypothermia.
When he finally came home, he wasn’t the same man. He had lost twenty kilos, and had a cough that often turned into choking. He couldn’t eat, became quiet, and often screamed in his sleep. For my grandfather, the betrayal by his neighbor was more difficult to accept than the cough that persisted for the rest of his life, and was diagnosed, by his doctor, as asthma developed in that prison cell.
From the moment Donald J. Trump was elected president, my social media channels exploded with the protests of my friends, while I became quiet. I watched my friends expressing their feelings openly and with a bravery I had never seen before. It confused me, made me proud of them, and ashamed of myself. I agreed with them, but privately, didn’t dare to join their voices. People on social media were my neighbors, and I became suspicious. I felt I was being watched by someone who was not supposed to watch me, who was not invited, whose motives were unknown to me. Mostly, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I justified my distance with my desire to be apolitical. I left politics behind when I left Poland, I confessed in a couple of private messages, and I didn’t want to go back to it.
I resisted the resistance on social media until January 11th, the day Donald J. Trump took the podium for his first press conference as president, and not only refused to take a question from Jim Acosta of CNN, but yelled at him, calling his network fake news. In the live feed, I couldn’t see Acosta, but I saw Donald J. Trump’s face, contorted with rage and power, his finger pointed at something in front of him, something he was dismissing with an authority acquired long before he was elected president. The movement of Donald J. Trump’s arm broke something in me, and pulled me back into my freshmen year in high school.
It was a rainy September. The year was 1980, the same year Czesław Miłosz would receive, two months later, the Nobel Prize in Literature. Sitting in the courtroom, we already knew, through underground channels, that he’d been nominated. That September I won the first prize in my high school recitation competition, presenting Miłosze’s trilogy, Faith, Hope, Love. We think he might win, my Polish teacher whispered into my ear, suggesting those poems for me to memorize, and I noticed how the air changed with the word, we. “We” meant those of us who were against the communist regime. “We” meant everyone who persisted, who hoped. And finally, “we” meant my grandfather could talk about his cough openly, without shame and worry, and let everyone who asked know that he had slept on a concrete floor for over a month, imprisoned by the communist regime.
That day in September, my class went on a field trip for Civic Studies. We were to spend a day in court, witnessing different proceedings, and then write about them. The dark, high-ceilinged courtroom, located in a 19th-century red-brick building on King Sobieski Street, was filled with an aura of intimidation. We sat in silence. Some, encouraged by the teacher, took notes, but reluctantly, more to give the impression of taking notes than actually taking them. All of us wanted to be somewhere else.
A man stood accused of stealing a bicycle from someone who fell asleep drunk on a bench in the park not far from the Courthouse. The judge, a small man with a cap of dark hair and thick eyebrows, barely visible from behind his bench, oozed satisfaction at his own leniency: since the offender wasn’t in the possession of the bicycle anymore, the penalty was for the offender to pay a small sum to the plaintiff. A soft murmur spread through the courtroom. Our Civics Class teacher got up and scanned the room, alarmed, quieting us in an instant. We knew that for her to teach this class she had to be a member of the Communist Party, so no one wanted to get on her bad side, which might have resulted in repeating the class or, worse, being expelled. My best friend, Krystyna, sitting to my left, wrote in her notebook, A fucking joke. You can’t even buy a bike for that amount! Hanna, the best student in math in our Math and Physics Profile Class, wrote in her notebook, Where is he going to buy the bike? The stores are empty! I wrote in mine, Maybe he gets lucky, and finds the person who has his bike, and buys it from him? The absurdity of the judge’s order threw us back into our Kafkaesque reality. Jaromar, whose grandparents were sent to Siberia after WWII, sitting in front of me, lifted his notebook above his head for a split second, long enough for us behind him, to see the big spider he had drawn, and even though the spider was drawn in black ink, we all knew, it meant the Red Spider, a commonly used pejorative symbol for a communist sympathizer.
What happened next chilled the room, made me remember my grandfather’s cough, and the concrete floor he slept on for over a month.
A man was accused of stealing a roll of tar paper from an abandoned State Agricultural Farm building. Many of those buildings were scattered across the Polish landscape of the 80s. Back then, the tar paper was commonly used for insulating and waterproofing roofs. In his defense, the accused first offered a sincere apology, and then explained that he had been trying to buy tar paper for years, but it was not available in stores. To make his case, he presented a long list of places he visited over the years in the entire Pomerania Region, to acquire the tar paper, but was not successful. He also argued that by the time his wife had their second child their house had become uninhabitable because of black mold. He presented the judge a picture of the roof to show the scrupulous patchwork he performed over the years. In the end, he offered a statement from their family’s pediatrician stating that the moldy air in the house was directly related to the second child’s poor health and lack of appetite. His last line of defense recalled that the roll of tar paper he had stolen was lying in the abandoned building for years, and he concluded, that it clearly belonged to no one, and was as abandoned as the building.
The judge’s order—ten years in prison for stealing public property—provoked further disquiet in the audience. Our teacher got up, but now, instead of scanning the room, barked, Quiet! The accused was escorted from the room. The judge, noticing our unrest, stayed, and announced that he was willing to take questions from the class, The future of our country, he stated with a grin. I wanted to speak, but couldn’t muster enough courage to raise my hand. Do you think he knows about Miłosz? I wrote in my notebook, and elbowed Krystyna to look at it. Doesn’t matter, I bet he couldn’t care less. Krystyna wrote in her notebook.
Remembering the fieldtrip today, I want to say that I muttered, Fuck or Shit, under my breath, but I know better. I was a very polite young woman, and my rage never translated into curse words, but rather into heart palpitations and excessive sweating. I believe that, because of my reliable politeness, the teacher picked me, when I finally raised my arm with several other students.
When I started (Najwyższy Sadzie, Your Honor…) my teacher nodded, smiled, and sat down—relaxed, she looked at the judge. I first apologized for not understanding, and assumed my fault—an old trick of the well raised young woman—and then presented my case. I compared the crime of stealing a bicycle that was used by a person every day, to get to work, with the crime of stealing an abandoned roll of tar paper, exposed to elements, and wasting away. I spoke quickly, I knew I had to, recalling the newborn baby, the moldy walls, the pediatrician’s letter. But I was not allowed to finish. The judge jumped to his feet, leaned forward over his bench, pointed his index finger at me, and screamed, No, no, no! My teacher, who had been fidgeting when I spoke, also jumped to her feet, and tried to make me stop by waving her arm. I couldn’t sit down. I wanted to, but my body turned into a rigid object, a straight rod moved only by my heart pounding against my ribcage.
The judge, still standing, and still pointing his index finger, first asked me if I understood that the second man was stealing from all of us, He was stealing from you! He yelled the words. He asked me if I was approving of the man stealing from me, and when I said that I wanted the man to have the roll of tar paper for his wife and his children, the judge called me an enemy of the state. The room erupted with protests and questions, and no one paid attention to the teacher waving her arms in desperation.
Then it happened. The judge was yelling at me, I want your name! still wagging his finger, and when I opened my mouth to answer, Jaromar got up, interrupting me, and lifted his arm to quiet the room. I want to thank the Honorable Judge, he said. There was a moment of consternation as the room became silent. The judge composed himself, but didn’t sit down. The teacher scanned the room nervously. Jaromar stepped forward and slightly to the side, making sure he could address the judge and the classmates at the same time. When he said, I want to apologize for our behavior—I knew it was a trap. I want to thank the Honorable Judge for the lenient sentence of ten years for the man who stole the roll of tar paper, Jaromar continued, as the tension in the room rose. All eyes were on him, in perfect stillness and focus. By the silence, I knew that all my classmates knew it was a trap. We were waiting for the punchline, and then it came. I want to thank the Honorable Judge for not following his predecessor who in 1965 issued a death sentence for Stanisław Wawrzecki for stealing meat. The room roared with applause. We got up and clapped, yelling, Thank you Honorable Judge! Thank you!, while the judge, collecting his papers quickly—his face contorted with anger—left the room, and our teacher waved her arms, yelling, Quiet, quiet!
In that courtroom, in a split-second during Jaromar’s speech, my classmates and I connected in the mutual understanding of something profound, something that gave us power. Without exchanging any words, we suddenly understood that the teacher couldn’t fail any of us if we were in it together, and the school would not expel the entire class. After all, we were the Math and Physics Profile Class, the strongest students admitted to the freshmen 1980 class. We knew Jaromar was in trouble, but we also knew the line of defense he would take. He would plead absolute innocence and sincerity. In communist Poland, the judge had the power to issue a death penalty, no matter how absurd it was, and Jaromar could argue his honest gratitude against the sarcasm he would be accused of.
I stopped resisting the resistance on social media on January 11th, during that first press conference, when I realized Donald Trump couldn’t fire us all. He couldn’t jail us all. He couldn’t punish us all. He couldn’t reach every single person, no matter how hard he tried. There were too many of us.
Today, as the first 100 days of Trump’s America take shape, I am back to worrying about the things I can’t know—Who is watching me on social media? How far can Trump go?—the usual attitude of someone who grew up in a system that relied on secrecy, paid spies, lies, political propaganda, unquestionable power, and the suppression of resistance. No matter how rational I try to be, I cannot help but feel afraid. Because here, in America, my country, my home for over 25 years, I still remember December 13th, 1981—a year after that class trip—when the state imposed martial law in an attempt to destroy political opposition. The communist government of Poland, forced by the Soviets, pushed back against the growing resistance, against the Solidarity Movement, against Czesław Miłosz’s Nobel Prize in Literature, against my generation, and against speeches like Jaromar’s. The communist government tried but didn’t succeed. In the end, we persisted, and communism fell.
Today, in Trump’s America, when I see Trump’s index finger pointed at something in front of him—on my TV screen it looks like he is pointing at me—I have to force myself to remember that back in communist Poland we won. We persisted against all odds. We planned the Solidarity uprising in 1984, and we stuck together. I remember this every day now, reposting what needs to be reposted on social media, and I remember that Jim Acosta persisted against the power of the elected official trying to shut him down. Mr. President Elect, this is not appropriate, Acosta said, and his words cannot be erased. They are stored forever, and I don’t have to force myself to remember that if I need to unlearn something, I open the Internet and play the video.